Hammerklavier. Two hundred years ago it was just the German term for the still rather newfangled piano. Today, it means Beethoven's Sonata in B-flat, Opus 106, the ultimate expression of the instrument's aspirations and a definitive cultural monument more honored in textbooks than in recital halls.
Which made Horacio Gutierrez's recital at Royce Hall even more of an event. The Cuban American pianist has been something of a favorite son in absentia here since he made his professional debut with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic 30 years ago, and he returned Saturday with a program capped by the "Hammerklavier" Sonata.
"Now I know how to write music," Beethoven said after completing the vast piece, and it is indeed music about music. Severe and uncompromising in addressing its own recursive imperatives, the sonata is also a beguiling wonderland of continually refreshed beauty. The remorselessly developed long-term logic pays astonishing short-term dividends of ear-catching harmonic feints and abruptly revectored rhythms.
This is a piece that lives on tension and dynamism, and Gutierrez hit it in full athletic stride. His playing had a mutually reinforcing attention to detail and far-sighted purpose, and the kind of clarity that allowed even trills structural importance. His only miscalculation was the applause-inducing pause after the Adagio, an architectural and spiritual rift far more threatening than the similar effect after the opening Allegro.
For the first half of the concert, Gutierrez chose Berg's Sonata, Opus 1, George Perle's 1994 "Phantasyplay" and Schumann's Opus 20 Humoreske. Taken together, these works form sort of a mega-sonata--Berg the seriously expressive first movement, Perle the mercurial scherzo, and Schumann the slow movement and finale--rich in provocative cross-references that mirror many "Hammerklavier" issues.
To particularize only a few of the manifold wonders here, consider the deft, hand-crossing flutter of the "Phantasyplay" opening and the carefully manicured pedal-work near the end of the Humoreske. Gutierrez commands solid resources of technique and color, but, more important, the heart, mind and ear to deploy them to greatest impact on behalf of the music, not self-display.